To describe the life of Ed Perry without mentioning his delivery of what would go on to be known as the “Whiskey Speech” is to miss one of the greatest moments in his legacy in public service. Delivered on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Mississippi Capitol,
Perry recanted a fiery defense of corn liquor initially delivered by Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat Jr. of Corinth in 1952 in favor of legalizing spirits.
Perry regaled lawmakers with stories of good Christian men and women led down the bottomless pit of degradation by the contents of a bottle juxtaposed with images of friends sharing the same bottle which destroyed another in brotherhood and happiness. Perry concluded his speech, over the sound of applause, “If you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries millions of dollars to help our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our pitiful aged and infirm, to build highways, hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat. I will not compromise.”
For most people, life is comprised of collections of brief moments where one’s character shines bright through the facades we build to carry on through the trials and tribulations of everyday life. But for all who knew Perry, it seemed like his moments burned a little longer and shone a little brighter. On Jan. 15, Perry passed away at his home in Oxford — he was 76 years old.
A seasoned lawmaker and lawyer by trade, Perry served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1968 to 1999 and as House clerk, the highest ranking administrative position in the chamber, through the mid-2000s. In his passing, he was remembered for his strong advocacy in defense of the state’s colleges and universities, his skills as an orator and his friendship to nearly all those with whom he served in the Capitol. In his time as a legislator, the Southern Democrat chaired the House Appropriations Committee and the Judiciary Committee, serving his constituents through periods of great change.
Perry was one of Oxford’s great treasures and an unapologetic defender of the interests of those whom he represented. These days, it feels like there aren’t many politicians who carry the mantle of public service as graciously as Perry once did — and far fewer who are known to command a room with the charm and bravado which defined the Southern politician of the 20th century.
I am far too young to claim witness to Perry’s formative years in public service, or even to remember his later moments, yet we all live proudly in the shadow in his achievements — at the university, on the Square and perhaps around a bottle of Tennessee whiskey
with friends. Perry shaped the state in which we live, from the waters of Gautier to the halls of the Lyceum. Our state lost a legislator, but we should take comfort in knowing that somewhere beyond our world stand a great many of those who passed, gathering around that great oil of conversation which is consumed when fellows get together and that Perry spoke of at the Mississippi Capitol all those years ago.